Of eminent domain and extraterrestrials

Every time the government moves to seize the property of private landowners it makes news, and rightly so in the era since Kelo. The latest case to hit the presses on this front has more than a few twists to it, however. The Sheahan family of Nevada owns approximately 400 acres of desert land northwest of Las Vegas which was once the site of a mining operation but the federal government wants to buy them out. The sticking point which spices up the story is that the Sheahans’ property, locally known as Groom Mine, borders on Groom Lake, also more commonly known as Area 51.

The U.S. Air Force is giving an ultimatum to owners of a remote Nevada property now surrounded by a vast bombing range including the super-secret Area 51: Take a $5.2 million “last best offer” by Thursday for their property, or the government will seize it.

The answer: No, at least for now…

Today, Groom Mine overlooks Groom Lake, a site so secret that Col. Thomas Dempsey, a Nellis Air Force Base commander, would only refer to it on Friday as “one of many remote locations within the Nevada Test and Training Range.”

“Nothing you can look up in any Air Force naming convention refers to Area 51,” added Jennifer Miller, deputy assistant Air Force secretary for installations.

The big questions for most of these cases is whether or not the land is truly being taken for “public use” and if a fair price is being offered to the owner. As far as Groom Mine is concerned, the government at least claims that they want it as part of their expanded nuclear testing grounds and bombing range. While this isn’t as direct of a case of public use as, for example, a road or a water treatment facility, it’s still land which the government uses in support of the military in their proper role of defending the nation. Even if indirectly, I’d say that qualifies as public use.

How about the price? Being Nevada – and not all that far from Sin City – you might think that $5.2M is a rather paltry price for 400 acres. But the value of real estate must sometimes factor in other considerations than square footage. What is the potential of the property? Would could the owners or some new private buyer do with it to increase its value and earn some money? In this case, there is no ready access to the land. It’s entirely surrounded by a military preserve. And if we didn’t note this strongly enough above, it’s in the middle of a bombing range. In terms of selling real estate, that’s generally going to lower your property values.

But if there’s nobody there anyway, why is the government so riled up to make sure that the family doesn’t own it any more? Again… the property overlooks Groom Lake and – at least according to the owners – they know things.

Sheahan family members consider themselves good neighbors and patriotic Americans, with generations of decorated military members, Manning and Joe Sheahan said. They don’t tell what they’ve seen.

But Manning, 59, remembers the tales handed down during decades on the porch of a rustic home overlooking Groom Lake.

“We didn’t have much more than a transistor radio and a deck of cards, and no indoor toilet,” she said. “Our grandparents told us the stories.”

To this day the government still doesn’t acknowledge the existence of Area 51 which seems rather preposterous. You may not believe that there was an extraterrestrial craft that crashed in Roswell but there was clearly something going on at Groom Lake which former workers have attested to over the years. The Skunk Works was very active out there and it’s supposedly where they developed and tested the first high altitude spy planes along with who knows how many other experimental craft they were working on. (The conspiracy theory crowd still has a raging debate going on as to whether or not the government moved Area 51 to a new location once the public found out about it, presumably with all the alien bodies and spacecraft in tow.)

Sure, my own speculation is probably a result of the fact that I spend too much time listening to the Mysterious Universe podcast and watching Ancient Aliens, but I just inherently harbor some distrust about anything the government is doing out there. How badly do they need to use this abandoned mine if there’s nobody there? Couldn’t they drop their bombs a few miles to the north? And I’m pretty sure we’re not detonating any above ground nukes anymore. More likely they really just don’t want anyone having private land access to take a peek at what goes on in the testing grounds.

None of that, however, erases the original questions of whether or not this is a legal move in terms of eminent domain and a fair price for the property. At least from the cheap seats, it looks like the answer to both is yes.